March 31, 2021 Feature

From Law School Directly to In-House

©2021. Published in Landslide, Vol. 13, No. 4, March/April 2021, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Olivier Manigat is associate general counsel responsible for retail and online operations at Herman Miller. He previously held in-house roles at the XFL, the HEINEKEN Company, Major League Soccer, and the United Football League.

You have had quite a career working in-house at some of the most exciting and interesting brands. Did you always know you wanted to go in-house?

I didn’t have any idea that I wanted to go in-house. I thought I’d work in private practice, but I graduated law school in 2008 during a major recession, where new associates were getting laid off and firms were not hiring. I didn’t have a job upon graduation but knew that I needed to start honing my legal skills, so I worked unpaid at a boutique law firm specializing in civil rights and criminal defense. During that time, I also worked for BARBRI, the popular bar exam prep company, reviewing course materials, doing general office work, and troubleshooting with students who had not passed the bar.

To help move out of this phase, I primarily focused on two things: The first was controlling the aspects of my career that I could control. In addition to working at a firm where I developed my critical and analytical thinking as well as research and writing skills, I fine-tuned my resume and cover letter and participated in tons of mock interviews with mentors and practitioners, who challenged me and gave me critical feedback. The second thing I did was to network as much as I possibly could in areas of law that interested me. I was young, my network was not huge, but I reached out to who I knew. You have to start somewhere.

I eventually landed my first in-house legal job with a startup professional American football league—the United Football League (UFL). One of my former teammates on the Columbia football team actually helped me make this contact. He was the one who first introduced me to the general counsel. So even though my network was small then, it still helped.

 

What lessons did you take away from this period?

I really can’t stress enough how important it is not to dwell on factors out of your control.

I saw firsthand the importance of being resourceful. When I got the job at the UFL, I learned the basics of how to be an effective and efficient in-house counsel while also handling a variety of commercial transactions and contracts for the league office and member teams.

To use a sports analogy, I was a rookie when I started at the UFL. I had to learn the role, and there was a lot of pressure. But everyone needs to remember that you make mistakes and you learn from them and grow. With practice and experience, you can become that valuable team player for your organization.

Despite thoroughly enjoying my time at the UFL helping build a new business, I left the upstart league in 2011 to join Major League Soccer (MLS), a much larger and fast-growing professional sports organization with big ambitions.

Was your work at MLS similar to your work at the UFL? How did you adjust?

I was able to take the basics I learned at the UFL and put them to use at MLS in a similar commercial transactional role. I refer to MLS as where I got my “reps” as an attorney. What I mean by that is I had the opportunity to work on a high volume of matters in a dynamic, growing environment. It was a small legal team working in a league that was expanding rapidly by adding one or two new teams almost every year. The amount of different work that was on my plate allowed me to develop further as an attorney by challenging me to prioritize and manage multiple matters at once. While at MLS, I also perfected my contract drafting and negotiating skills and came into my own lawyering style. I became an effective advocate for my business clients.

That sounds like a great role. Why did you leave it?

I left MLS after close to five years because I wanted to broaden my legal expertise. I realized that, as much as I had learned there, a career move would provide me with new professional opportunities. There were experiences I couldn’t be afforded at MLS, and I wanted to do more. After beginning my career working for two young professional sports companies, I wanted to round out my experience by going to a more mature company in a different industry.

I joined Heineken USA as a director and senior counsel. It was an incredible experience—not only did I get to learn a new area of law as well as expand the type of commercial matters and transactions that I worked on, but I also got to see and learn how a company with a storied history and iconic brands went to market with its products and the legal issues it faced. The global presence, complex regulatory environment, and detailed internal processes that were in place only enhanced this experience.

You then went to the XFL. Tell us about that opportunity.

I loved working at Heineken USA, but when the XFL opportunity arose, I couldn’t say no. The XFL was entrepreneurial, innovative, fast-paced, and, frankly, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help launch a modern professional sports organization. I was one of the first attorneys hired to build the league from the ground up of what was promising to be a huge endeavor. The league debuted in February 2020 to immediate success, and then COVID came along . . . and the league completely folded in its wake. I unbelievably found myself out of a job just eight months after I started.

That led you to Herman Miller. What is your role there, and how did you get there?

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a scary time. Of course, it was. Losing your job is something no one finds pleasant, but luckily there were a lot of companies looking for an experienced in-house counsel, and I was able to be thoughtful and picky in my choices. I never would have expected to join the furniture design industry, but when I learned about the Herman Miller role it just seemed incredibly interesting. This was a company with a long, long history that was embarking on a new chapter of its business. It made me want to be part of where it went next.

Herman Miller traditionally was a business-to-business company. More recently, it’s been focusing on becoming more consumer-facing by expanding its portfolio as well as online product and retail offerings—just recently it opened new experiential concept stores at Century City in Los Angeles and New York City’s Hudson Yards. My new role on the retail leadership team is primarily focused on providing legal support in support of this transformation of Herman Miller’s retail endeavors. I am once again building something, and I get to wear many hats, from looking at marketing initiatives, doing advertising review, negotiating commercial agreements, troubleshooting legal issues on a day-to-day basis, advising on data privacy, you name it. I’m also part of the leadership of Herman Miller’s global legal services team, which was built to lead all in-house legal activities in furtherance of the company’s strategic objectives.

Did your past legal experiences help with your transition to this entirely new industry?

I like to connect the dots between all of my professional positions. Each was a building block for the next in my development as an attorney. While they may seem different on paper, all of them educate what I am doing now. For instance, a lot of things we did at the XFL to build legal capabilities in a new organization are very helpful to my current role and shape how I look to raise the legal acumen of my retail colleagues. Heineken is another company that has been around for over 100 years, like Herman Miller, and has an incredibly rich heritage. The work I did there certainly informs the approach I take at Herman Miller to preserve and protect our brands. I also see a lot of value in what I learned in the other industries that helps me with what I am doing now.

This has been an incredible and exciting career so far. What advice do you have for others looking to chart their own course?

One experience that has stuck in my mind stems all the way back to law school. I had an awesome opportunity to work full-time clerking for a federal judge one semester. The judge would invite professionals in various capacities to come talk to us, and one woman with an incredibly impressive career gave us some advice. She said that to have an amazing career like her, you needed to go to a great school, be the top of your class, work in big law for prestigious firms, and only then will you be as successful as you can be. That stuck with me, and I thought that had to be my plan. I felt that if I didn’t follow that advice, I wouldn’t have the career I was aspiring to have.

That advice could not have been more wrong! I figured out at a young age that you have to chart your own course. It is so important. You don’t have to do what others did. Everyone has to find their own way and work with the tools they have to do so. It’s important to stay positive, not to get bogged down and caught up when people tell you that things must go a certain way. You might not have to hustle for two years like I did, and your path might be different, but you will get there. Trust yourself and do what is right. Work hard and good things will come.

What advice do you have for other in-house attorneys?

So much comes down to mindset. Your job is to work well with others and solve problems. Don’t get caught up on how big or hard those problems may seem. They may be challenging, but ultimately there is a solution, and my approach to problem-solving is always “we can figure this out.” Remember that and work through whatever may come your way calmly and confidently.

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